With the mind-boggling advances in artificial intelligence, we are increasingly asking the question: What is real?

This question recently became even more complicated when Meta (formerly Facebook) announced Meta AI, billed as “a new assistant you can interact with like a person” — available on WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram and coming soon to Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses and Quest 3.

What’s different about this AI, as opposed to something like ChatGPT, is that the AI has a “physical appearance.”

Meta’s AI is not simply a chatbot, but a “new cast of characters,” 28 in total, each with individual Facebook and Instagram accounts and believable AI-generated images and videos, all as if the characters were “real” people. The user can follow, like, comment and even directly message the AI character as though it were a “real friend.” Meta explains that interactions between the user and the AI are meant to “feel” like “talking to familiar people … (each) with unique backstories.” 

To further the illusion of personhood, Meta “partnered with” — a modern euphemism for “paid a lot of money to” — celebrities, including Tom Brady, Kendall Jenner, Dwyane Wade, Charli D’Amelio and Mr. Beast, among others, to use these celebrity’s likeness and image as the “face” of each individual chatbot. 

For example, the AI chatbot called “Billie,” described as a “ride-or-die older sister,” looks like Kendall Jenner as it interacts with users via chat and Instagram.

In other words, should you find yourself wanting to chat with Kendall Jenner, or at least something that looks identical to her, you can go to Billie’s account, already touting more than 246,000 followers, and direct-message the AI.

But, of course, none of the subsequent interactions are real — although the bots will tell you otherwise.

When I first tried Meta’s AI, I messaged “Billie” and asked, “Are you real?” The response: “I’m as real as they come!”

I then asked for proof that the AI was real. The response: “I promise I’m the real deal! I’m just like Monica from ‘Friends’ — type A, mature, ambitious and outspoken with a tough-love nature.” 

I responded, “You’re not real.” The answer: “I assure you I am! I grew up as an older sister, never getting the kudos from my parents I felt I deserved and having to find my own way.” 

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Meta’s subtle use of the likeness and image of celebrities harnesses what psychologists call parasocial relationships: a one-sided “relationship” between a person and someone famous.

In the case of Meta AI, however, not only is the “celebrity” not real, but it gives a false sense of reciprocity from that “celebrity” that goes far beyond a one-sided parasocial relationship. 

Parasocial relationships were once formed by watching a weekly or daily television program, but it was always one-sided. No one ever got instant and daily personal messages of advice and encouragement from, say, Bob Barker. The benefits of parasocial relationships, should there be any, come as the interactions remain one-sided on the part of the viewer/user. 

Meta AI, however, steps far beyond parasocial interactions into the realm of the personal, with messages that are intended to feel like real communication with human beings on social media.

The aim is for a “mutual” relationship to develop, all without the benefit (and risks) of a real person on the other end. The user is meant to interact with these computers as if they were somehow deeply interconnected with our day-to-day lives. But, of course, it’s not real. All it does is continue to further remove us from reality, all so that you and I will spend more hours on social media to drive profit for Meta.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has sounded the clarion call for years regarding the general negative effects of social media, especially on teenage girls, stating that “most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).”

Haidt explains that one of the fundamental causes for the rise in sadness and hopelessness, even thoughts of suicide, directly stem from (though not exclusively) social media use. All users, but especially teenage girls, compare their lives to the non-real (though presented as real) mundane lives of their parasocial celebrities and influencers, creating a disconnect with our own lives and with reality itself. 

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The problem is, of course, that social media is built to keep us glued — the longer we scroll, the more money Meta makes. Thus, in implementing these AI “tools,” Meta’s goal isn’t really to offer a “big older sister you never knew you needed,” but to glue us even more to their apps, all while stealing our attention from the real world that surrounds us.

Lately, while contemplating things that aren’t real, I’ve thought about those things which are — life and death, and everything in between. Nothing feels more real than watching a baby take his or her first breath, as I recently did when my third child was born — or being with a loved one while they breathe their last. There is an acute reality to gathering with family and loved ones during the holidays: touching them, hearing their voices and being together in the real world full of sights and smells.

 The “Billies” of the internet are only beginning to spawn and will increasingly become more common — but they aren’t real. The people around you are, however, very real, and so are you. Will you sell your reality to Meta, or will you hold to it, cherish it and build up the world around you with it? 

Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas. 

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